La Dolce Vita - Roadtrip through Italy
Part 1 from Bologna to Apulia
Long time I just wanted to get into a car and start driving through Italy without a proper plan and without any previous bookings – which is quite unusual for me as normally I plan my trips in all details. But this time it was different and what to say it was an amazing trip with so many new experiences, new places and new people. Of course our gypsy lifestyle was tiring some times, but the trip was worth it. Italy is a very well known destination, but there are still so many secret spots to discover away from the popular cities as Rome, Milan, Venice and alike, which we completely skipped on this trip. We wanted to get to know to a more hidden and authentic Italy and therefore chose also most of the time small B&B´s or countryside places to get the local touch. As the name says Bella Italia is indeed a real beauty that deserves to get discovered without a hectic time schedule. Just indulge in the Dolce Vita!
Facts & Figures to start
We did a whopping total of 4500 km, however we started our trip from my home town Munich in Germany. First Italian city was Bologna and then we went over the east coast side to Apulia, afterwards Calabria and then did the return routing over the western coast, Tuscany, South Tyrol and back to Munich.
As this was a giant trip – I will split it up into two Blog posts now. So this post will describe the routing from Bologna to Apulia with a detour over the Gargano peninsula, which is a rough 1000 km trip in total.
Bologna can be easily reached by various international airlines.
Mode of transport
We did the entire trip with a rented car. After some initial problems with our reservation, which however was addressed quickly and with a good solution, we were very satisfied with the car we got and it didn’t let us down the whole way. Only one time in the most remote place of the trip (of course!!!) some warning lamps for the tyre pressure popped up which caused some panic for us ladies, but after we found a garage and a nice Italian guy to help (well he was an exception as a lot of Italian guys lost their gentleman attitude somehow I figured out), the problem was quickly solved.
Car rental was from Enterprise www.enterprise.com
Road conditions were fine, except some never-ending construction works, which caused traffic jams especially during weekends. And be aware Italians are not the most patient drivers and most of them seem to feel like on a F1 race course.
Best travel month
We did the trip in the month of June, which was a good time as it still was not too hot and the peak season hasn´t started yet. Otherwise a lot of places would have been overcrowded and it would have been difficult to find an accommodation without a previous reservation.
Nov – March Not recommended as a lot of touristic places and hotels will be closed.
April – May Spring time with a nice blooming nature. However some places will still be closed. Advantage for this period is that you will be often the only foreigner among locals.
June and Sept./Oct In my opinion the best time, as all these month are shoulder seasons with better prices and less tourists. Especially autumn time will be very scenic.
July – Aug Not recommended due to the peak season. Beaches and villages will be overcrowded and you won´t find any availabilities. The days around 15th August are a real no-go as whole of Italy will be in motion due to their major holiday at that time.
As mentioned I didn’t do any previous bookings. We just decided at the spot where we like to go the next day and I booked all accommodations online via www.booking.com – usually I am not a big fan of these large online booking portals, but for this trip it was very convenient and the hotels and B&B´s were very pleasant. We had good experiences throughout and found even some small characteristic local places like farmhouses etc. that you usually find more on www.airbnb.com
Stop 1 Bologna
The perfect entry gate to Italy, which already sets you back in the ancient Roman times. Nowadays a buzzling university city with great restaurants, lively cafes and bars and of course not to forget great shopping opportunities.
We stayed at the Savoia Hotel Regency, which is a bit off the centre, but easily accessible from all main highways and with free parking. The bus to the city stops in front of the hotel and takes 10 minutes to reach there. Otherwise the hotel is a bit old fashioned, but in a quiet surrounding and has a nice pool for an afternoon dip, www.savoia.eu
Best in Bologna is to just wander in the streets around the impressive Piazza Maggiore, which is surrounded by various Palazzos and the Basilica di San Petronio.
You will find many stunning monuments and buildings in walking distance like for example the Due Torri (looks a bit like you are in Pisa 😊).
Like in most of the Italian cities there are plenty of churches, historic buildings and museums to explore.
Further away (in Via Piella) you can feel like you are in Venice at the Canale di Reno.
The Art of Aperitivo
An Aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink that should spur your appetite and is a common habit throughout Italy. However in Bologna an Aperitivo is a real celebration and you can find many super nice spots all over the city, where they take the Aperitivo on the creative side. You will get some snacks (olives, chips) or fingerfood (salami, small sandwiches) served along your Aperitivo. That is why the price will be a bit higher than for a normal drink. Most popular choices are Spritz, Aperol or Cynar. For me an Aperitivo on some of the Piazzas surrounded by a chatting crowd of local students, is the real Italian feeling.
A nice and different place for an Aperitivo is the Mercato dele Erbe (Herbs Market) www.mercatodelleerbe.eu – where you can find different food stalls and bars located in a historic building. After your Aperitivo you can also enjoy a great meal over there.
Not a specific restaurant tip, but a whole neighbourhood of streets filled with restaurants, bars, butchers, bakeries and grocery stores is the Quadrilatero area beside the Piazza Maggiore. Although this area is very touristic, it is still very charming and you can find some good options like for example the 051 Cibo e Passione (Via de Pignattari 1/F). Here you can order big plates of Prosciutto, Cheese and other Italian delicies.
Outside of the Quadrilatero I can recommend the La Prosciutteria (www.laprosciutteria.com) for more Italian treats and the Cremeria la Vecchia Stella (www.vecchiastalla.it) for a post-dinner gelato.
Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival screens film classics in the spectacular open-air set-up at the Piazza Maggiore. A popular yearly event that is the sign that summer has arrived in the city. Some of the silent films are accompanied by full orchestras www.festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it
Another popular yearly event is the Bologna RoBot Festival dedicated to electronic music and digital art. It´s a hip and very urban celebration and you can find DJ sets, video installations and workshops all over the city www.robotfestival.it
Stop 2 Riccione
The well-known beach stretch at the Italian Rivera formerly a traditional thermal sea bath, is since long a beach lovers paradise. However it all depends on your definition of paradise – if hundreds of bars, clubs, restaurants and shops in one spot is your thing, Riccione and the neighbouring resorts of Rimini and Cattolica is your place-to-be together with half of Italy during the summer month – as also the locals love to come here. Don´t mind that wherever you go, you will be squeezed in with others, especially on the beach, where your neighbour will almost sit in your lap. Nothing for people who like their freedom.
In Riccione, same as in the other resort towns around, you have plenty of hotels (400 in Riccione alone) and apartments on offer. We stayed at the stylish Boutique Hotel The Box (www.theboxriccione.com). Rooms are tiny, but in a nice retro-design. Also the public areas are with a fresh and urban Vintage design – a hotel that mainly caters for hip travellers with the modern bar on the ground floor plus the healthy plated breakfast options. The hotel doesn’t have a sea view as a building is right in front of it. So you have to walk around that block to reach the beach. Staff was very friendly and helpful, which was unfortunately not the case in many other hotels and restaurants on this tour.
Main thing to do in Riccione is actually not to do anything. Just sunbath on the beach, take a dip into the very shallow water (good for kids, but not so good for grown-ups) or maximum have a walk on the endless beaches. The region earned its reputation as the “Teutonen Grill” – due to the many pale German tourists getting sun grilled there.
All the beachside promenade is well-done with lots of plants and therefore gave Riccione the name “The Adriatic Green Pearl”.
Along that promenade you can also find all the beach clubs or bagnos as they are called, where you can rent sunbeds and umbrellas on daily or weekly basis. Nowadays the beach clubs got up-graded and offer various activities such as beach games, sport programs, yoga and so on. Most of them have their own beach restaurant and bar and few even their own tiny swimming pool.
Evenings are dedicated to shopping and having a stroll through the pedestrian area, with a stop at one of the many ice cream parlours.
All the youngsters are then moving on to the famous open-air clubs of this region.
At the harbour area (Porto) you can find a couple of real good fish restaurants like the Ristorante Portofino (www.portofinoriccione.com) or Ristorante da Fino (www.dafino.it) – of course anything fish or seafood should be your choice here.
On Easter Riccione is inaugurating the tourist season with some big events and shows, which are worth a visit. For events in Riccione and the area around check on www.emiliaromagnaturismo.com
Stop 3 Termoli
Termoli used to be a small fishing village. Nowadays it became also a popular beach destination at the Adriatic sea, however it is a bit more relaxed and with a more local touch compared to the previous stop. The historic center of Termoli is situated high above the sea on a rocky plateau. The narrow cobble stone streets and the pastel-coloured old houses are surrounded by a historic fortress wall.
The hotel options directly in the center are limited. We stayed at the Hotel Mistral (www.hotelmistral.net), which is directly located at the beachside road with 5 minutes walking distance to the old center. The hotel is old-fashioned and nothing special. However our room was spacious with a balcony and sea view. We just stayed one night, so it was perfectly fine, however for a longer stay I wouldn´t recommend the hotel – somehow it feels strange especially the breakfast room, which has the ambiance of a train station. Breakfast was the normal average Italian breakfast.
Also here main activities are concentrated on the beach.
Otherwise you can do a walk around the fortress wall and see some traditional Trabucchi, which are old fishing machines typical to this region. They are built over rocky areas where the sea is deep enough and are very picturesque photo spots for tourists as well.
Later you can take a stroll through the narrow streets of the historic center.
Opposite the gate to the old town, you can see a long pedestrian street that leads into the new town. In this street you can find a variety of shops, pubs and restaurants.
A very good restaurant in a historic building of the old city is the Ristorante Svevia (www.svevia.it) – with excellent food, presented in very creative dishes. Another popular dining spot in Termoli is the Ristorante da Nicolino (www.ristorantenicolino.it).
A place that I didn’t try, but looked very nice from passing by was the Osteria dentro le Mura (www.osteriadentrolemura.it) – here the guests are sitting on small tables and chairs outside at the city wall overlooking the sunset.
Every year on the last Sunday in August the Fish Festival is taking place at the Port of Termoli. As the name says all is dedicated here to fish and you can try some delicious local specialities. The Festival is celebrating the union of the inhabitants to the sea, which is a source of living for many families in Termoli www.molisecoast.com
Stop 4 Gargano
The Gargano peninsula belongs already to the region of Apulia and due to its form it is also called the “spur” on the “Italian boot”. The rocky peninsula stretches deep into the Adriatic sea and is covered with a dense vegetation. In the National Park you can still see remains of the Foresta Umbra, ancient oak and beech trees that once covered most of Central Europe. Further you can explore picturesque villages in the Gargano region or swim in the crystal clear waters of the local beaches. And of course like everywhere in Italy the food is just amazing, so don´t miss to try out the regional cuisine.
Was really a lucky choice and one of my favourite on the tour – the Boutique Hotel Il Castellino Relais (www.ilcastellinovieste.it) – which is a bit off the center of Vieste at the end of the city beach Spiaggi di San Lorenzo. You can see the picturesque Villa already from far away with its bright rose colour. Our room was a bit small, but comfortable and with a nice balcony facing the sea. Breakfast was great with many different choices and the outside seating on the terrace a perfect place for a good start into the day. Furthermore the hotel has a garden swimming pool and its own umbrella/sunbed section on the public beach opposite the hotel.
If you prefer a city hotel in Vieste, I can recommend the Hotel Seggio (www.hotelseggio.it), which is located directly in the heart of the historic center. The hotel is sitting on the edge of the city cliff and therefore offers amazing views over the sea. With an elevator through the rock you can reach beneath the private beach and pool area of the hotel.
As mentioned before there are many picturesque villages on the coast as well as inside the Gargano Peninsula.
The medieval village Vico del Gargano for example is a must-see on every Gargano trip. High up in the mountains it can be reached through a narrow, winding road and offers spectacular views of the Peninsula around. Famous for its historic buildings and the citrus plantations around it is also called the “Village of Love” – so a famous spot for all love birds. A lot of the old buildings are abandoned nowadays and a walk through the maze of streets feels like a time ride.
Then on the coast on the very top of the Peninsula you have Vieste – which is nice for a couple of days on the beach and to explore the surrounding area. The historic center offers many shops, restaurants and bars with the medieval castle overlooking the city.
Also the rock formation on which Vieste is situated is picturesque, especially the Pizzomunno on the Scialara beach, which is an impressive limestone monolith.
From Vieste and the other coastal towns you can also take nice boat trips to explore the stunning beaches, coves and caves. Around the whole Peninsula you have a landscape of spectacular white cliffs, covered with a lush green vegetation that are dropping steep into the crystal blue sea.
Then a walk through the ancient woods of the Foresta Umbra (www.forestaumbra.com) should not be missed. The climate is much better up here than in the coastal region and the dense forest feels somehow mystical and out from a fairy tale world. If you want you can also take guided walks here or sleep overnight in some rustic cottages.
The most famous spot however of Gargano is for sure the pilgrimage village Monte Sant Angelo (www.turismomontesantangelo.it). The huge bus parking spaces on the approach to the village will already remind you that you won´t be alone here. Monte Sant Angelo is a symbol of the sacredness of the area. The Shrine of St. Michael Archangel is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the holy Grotto is listed in the National Geographic Magazine among the most beautiful top ten Sacred Caves in the world. Through a complex of overlapping structures you walk your way down to the cave, where no pictures are allowed and long cloth is required (you will be given a cover if you don´t bring your own).
Otherwise there are many other churches and historical buildings to explore in the village.
Also the medieval fortress can be visited.
In spring time a variety of wild orchids will bloom in the valleys around.
Of course the Gargano area is also a culinary heaven and especially the fish and seafood dishes can´t get any fresher than here. Octopus can be found in different varieties on all the menus, but my favourite one is the thinly sliced Octopus Carpaccio.
A nice beach snack and typical to the region are also the delicious Piadina – Italian flatbreads filled with cheese and ham.
A common appetizer or bar snack in whole Italy are the Bruschetta breads – grilled white bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil and topped with chopped fresh tomatoes and basil. At the Bruschetteria La Piazetta in Vieste (Piazetta Padre Pio 5) you can find these little breads in a great variety and with perfection.
Further restaurant tips in Vieste are Il Paniere (www.ilpanierevieste.it) a rustic Trattoria, where you can get traditional Apulian food with organic ingredients.
For romantic dinners La Ripa (www.laripa.net) would be a perfect choice, where you can dine in a historic cellar surrounded by candle light and with a creative and healthy cuisine. Just the service needs to improve in speed.
And of course the Aperitivo is celebrated here as well – best at the Carpenter Bar (Largo Seggio 9) on the edge of the city cliff and with a spectacular sea view.
For a sweet treat the Cornetteria Chianca Amara (Via Cimaglia 4) offers a great variety of Italian pastries, desserts and cakes.
The yearly summer Music Festival Serenata Tarantella (www.serenataallatarantella.com), which is held every August in Vieste on the beach close to the Pizzomunno monolith is a lively demonstration of the Italian Dolce Vita.
Stop 5 Polignano a Mare / Monopoli
After passing Bari, the main hub to the region, you can reach these two beautiful coastal towns in a short drive. Both towns should be included in every roadtrip through Apulia and you can easily spend a few days around here, as beaches are picturesque and the area rich in sights and culture.
We stayed at the San Tommaso Hotel (www.santommaso.net), which is a 5-minutes drive away from Polignano. The historic building is situated in a park-like garden and from the terrace you can enjoy the sea view. It felt a bit like in a small palace and our room was huge with a modern interior and a great view from the bathroom window. However the hotel is more a meeting and event venue and therefore lacks ambiance. At the time of our stay a wedding took place, which we only got informed after we already have made the booking. However the wedding party finished early and we were out anyway, so we didn’t experience any night-time disturbances. Breakfast was typical Italian style.
Polignano has a very nice historic center which is perfect for a pre-dinner stroll. A not to be missed activity is to watch the sunset from one of the many terraces. Polignano is also famous for its tiny city beach Cala Porto, which is situated directly under the old town and a Roman bridge. In summer this white-pebble beach can get really packed.
Monopoli has a very nice small village port, where you can observe the local fishermen.
For good Pizza and Pasta in Polignano try the La Terrazza (Via San Vito 1). The Terrazze Mona Chile (www.terrazzemonachile.com) has a spectacular location opposite the city cliffs, however with a higher price tag. Further spots to dine are the Pescaria (www.pescaria.it), the Trattoria Cuccundeo (www.cuccundeo.it) and the Ristorante Villa degli Aranci (www.villadegliaranci.it).
In June the Festival of St. Vito is taking place in Polignano with a boat procession on sea and a light festival and market within the city (www.costadeitrulli.org).
Also the Red Bull Cliff Diving series are sometimes stopping by in Polignano for some spectacular jumps from the city cliffs – check out the website for the latest schedule on www.cliffdiving.redbull.com
Stop 6 Land of the Trulli
In the middle of the Apulian region around Alberobello you can find a concentration of the traditional Apulian dry stone huts with their conical roofs - which gave the region the name “Trulli Land”. Somehow they look like dwarfs pointed hats from a fairly tale sticking out of the olive trees. The Trullis were formerly built as temporary shelters and storage houses and served as basic housing for agricultural labourers. Nowadays they are a huge touristic attraction and under protection. Due to the new touristic income a lot of Trulli ruins have been restored and are hosting now shops, restaurants and hotels.
Directly in the village of Alberobello you can find a real authentic Trulli experience with Trulli Holiday (www.trulliholiday.com), which is an Albergo Diffuso. Means that this is not one single connected hotel complex, but offers various Trulli houses located all over the village. Same you can find with Tipico Resort (www.tipicoresort.it).
We however chose a Masseria 5 km away from Alberobello. A Masseria in general is always a nice alternative to a common hotel accommodation. Masserias are restored old farmhouses, which usually offer B&B accommodation, however nowadays some of them are not the common basic versions anymore, but real luxury properties.
Our Masseria Pentima Vetrana (www.pentimavetrana.com) was a traditional B&B with a lovely set-up. We were lucky and got the Trulli apartement as not all the rooms are located in Trullis here.
The interior was rustic and inclusive of a kitchenette and outside BBQ place.
The Masseria had also a super nice garden and swimming pool, surrounded by vast olive tree plantations. Breakfast was served by the friendly “mama” of the house.
A place that I can highly recommend if you are in the region - only thing, you should not be allergic to cats as they have them all over the Masseria and the curious ones will come and check out your room as well 😉
Of course the main sights here are the Trulli houses and the picturesque villages around. So a day of village hopping is the best alternative. Must see places are:
Alberobello (www.alberobellotourism.com) – the Zona dei Trulli on one of the two city hills is the highest concentration of Trullis (around 1500 of the beehive shaped houses) found in the region and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking through the cobble stone streets along the white washed houses feels like walking through a hobbit movie. And by the way these small dwarf houses are not only popular among tourists, even some of the local discovered again their love for these ancient houses and moved back to live in them.
If you are looking for a nice hand-made souvenir visit Nicola Lopefrido in his workshop Lithos (Via Monte S. Michele 18). Here you can get authentic hand-made souvenir Trulli houses in which Nicola will engrave traditional symbols or initials of your own choice.
Locorotondo – which is situated on a hilltop and named as one of the most beautiful villages of Italy. Wander through the historic center with its white washed houses and the colourful flower pots hanging from balconies and lining up the streets.
Martina Franca – has a very fotogenic centre with many Baroque buildings, whitewashed houses and narrow alleys to explore.
Ostuni – another jewel of Apulia, which should be included in every itinerary. Rising high above the land, you can see the maze of white houses already from far. The Old Town combines many different époques with Gothic, Roman and Byzantine elements. The town is the place to be for all history lovers, but also for those who just like to take a relaxed walk through the labyrinth of streets and enjoy some real good food in the local restaurants.
A nice alternative to explore Ostuni is a feet-friendlyTuk-Tuk tour.
These were the main highlights for me in the region. But alone the drive through the countryside is picturesque with some Trulli´s around and lots of olive trees and farmland. This is an area to explore slowly, with a lot of time and muse.
If you are looking for some special tours in Apulia as well as other regions of Italy have a look on the website www.wonderfulitaly.eu
Il Trullo Antico – for rustic local food / Via Monte Pasubio 1
Favola in Tavola – another traditional restaurant / www.favolaintavola.com
Martinucci Pasticceria – for heavenly sweets and cakes / www.martinuccilaboratory.it
Ai Tre Santi – a cute family owned restaurant / Via Guarnieri Dottor 51
Pane, Amore e Fantasia – freshest organic, ingredients combined with traditional cooking / Corso Vittorio Emanuele 25-50